37. The individual in language policy and management

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Bernard Spolsky
Bar-Ilan University, Israel


In the two decades I have been studying language policy, I have found it necessary to keep adding to the model in order to account for the many cases I have come across. My first early concern was proposing a language education policy for Israeli schools; in tackling this, I was able to build on my earlier experiences with Navajo and Māori and a long interest in language education. We proposed a model which defined language policy as consisting of three interrelated but independent components. These were language practice (the actual choices of language variety made by speakers in a community), language beliefs and ideology (what people think should be the language of the community), and language management (efforts by people or institutions inside or outside a community to modify the beliefs and practices of members of the community). This was and remains the basic model.

In order to account for common failures of national policies, I found it necessary to consider different levels ranging from the family to the state and in different domains from home to government. After a study of real cases, especially former empires and their successors, I extended the model to include non-linguistic situations and events interfering with the implementation of language policies. More recently, I have been persuaded of the significance of the individual, both for establishing practices and through self-management, for resisting external management and expanding individual and group linguistic repertoires. This in brief is where I came from and how I got here: in the book that I am now working on, it seems appropriate to rethink the topic of language policy by reversing the normal order, with its historical focus on state language policy, and to start rather with the individual speaker.

Just as not all states are very interested in developing a formal language policy – the United States is an obvious example – so most speakers are probably unaware that their own repertoires are changing as a result of external experiences and pressures. In a homogenous monolingual society like the one I grew up in, it was my family’s Jewish religious observance that first revealed to me that there was another language (Hebrew) that we used for prayers. My Protestant peers had to wait until high school offered us a French class, and even that remained an academic exercise until we saw a French movie. My own contact with languages other than English in vernacular use came when I taught classes that included Māori students in a high school and later when I moved to Israel. But anyone growing up in the normal multilingual environment of modern cities, with parents or grandparents or peers using a complex repertoire of varieties, early becomes aware of the values attached to each variety, and the costs and advantages of modifying their own repertoires.

I now speak of repertoires, avoiding the problem of oversimplification that comes of references to named languages. Using the concept doesn’t mean giving up on named languages, difficult as it is to define them linguistically, for they are usually defined politically or socially. How does one define English, with all its national and dialectal varieties? Or why does one distinguish among the recently separated varieties of what was Serbo-Croatian, each now recognized as distinct by the International Standards Organization? When does a regional dialect like Friesian become a separate language from Dutch, and why is Catalan a language even without political independence, and why are mutually intelligible varieties of Scandinavian languages accepted as languages, while mutually unintelligible varieties of Chinese are all lumped together.

Children develop language repertoires from they hear in their environment. A child with both parents speaking the same variety will start off with it, but may later add the language of grandparents or caretakers, and of older siblings already at school. Studying this normal development is family language policy, and it is probably the most important domain for language maintenance: languages are endangered when they are no longer taught to babies and young children. But there are two other important processes to note. The first is accommodation, the not necessarily conscious modification of one’s speech to that of one’s interlocutor, and the second is self-management, the conscious effort to modify or add to one’s linguistic repertoire in the belief that it is advantageous.

It has been shown that speakers make linguistic adjustments based on their perception of their interlocutor’s social status, age, and presumed knowledge of the topic. They also learn what is appropriate when talking to various audiences: avoiding swear words when taking to their mother, or using a different variety in an immigrant family with their grandparents. Speakers modify their accent in order to obtain social approval: to express disapproval, they modify their accent in the opposite direction. At a group level, a minority group’s divergence might lead to language maintenance. Much the same process is dealt with by the theory of language socialization, an ethnographic approach which traces the way in which children’s and adults’ linguistic and cultural adeptness develops as they move into expanding speech and cultural communities with different linguistic codes and semiotic systems.

Some of the important evidence of the nature of accommodation refers not to language shift, but to the modification of dialect differences. The loss of localized features in British English was the result of geographical diffusion, with a spread from more populous and richer locations to surrounding cities and later to rural areas. The second mechanism, is called “levelling”, the result of speech accommodation. There has been dialect levelling in both Britain and France, associate with urbanization and internal migration. In Israel, the traditional distinctions between mutually unintelligible urban, rural and Bedouin dialects of Arabic still maintained by people over 70 are being lost among younger people working in public institutions and educated in standard Arabic, Hebrew and other modern languages. The values associated with speakers of more standard varieties then lead to changes in individual and community repertoires.

This influence of beliefs shows up also in accounting for successful second or foreign language learning. Attitudes and motivation are a critical factor in acquiring a language in school; there is a distinction between integrative motivation (learning a language as reflecting a desire to be like representative members of the other language community or to be associated with that community), and instrumental motivation (a desire to gain social recognition or economic advantage). In more recent work, the motivational self-system as it applied to second language learning has three components, the ideal self, the ought-to self, and language learning experiences.

Essentially we find that an individual’s language repertoire (combining with other to form the language practices of a community) depends on the languages to which he or she is exposed, while an individual’s language beliefs or ideology depend on his or her responses or attitude to the speakers in the environment and to their potential usefulness. Initially, this means caretakers, later it means peers including siblings and friends from the neighborhood, and in due course, it adds teachers and actual or potential employers. A growing repertoire results from these meaningful exposures and the associated values assigned to the people and the language varieties. In addition, it is liable to be influenced by management efforts of authorities, such as teachers and employers or the state. For example, there are the efforts of immigrant mother or father to preserve a heritage language or encourage the adoption of the local dominant variety. Each new domain or level, leading to communication with an increasing array of speakers, adds new sources of language management.

The three component model that I started with is useful in accounting for the development of individual language repertoires. First in importance are the language practices of the individual’s environment. In the home, this means that the choice of languages that household membres address to each other and even more important, the choice of meaningful utterances addressed to the growing child, helps establish the initial repertoire. These choices depend on two critical features: first, that others are willing to speak to the individual, and secondly that the utterances are meaningful.

What this suggests is the importance of beliefs or ideology, especially the values that are associated with a variety. A baby recognizes that the mother’s variety is associated with food and comfort; a pupil recognizes that the teacher’s variety is associated with success in school: a working adult may believe that an international language provides access to better paid work. These beliefs about the value of varieties play a major role in determining the continuing expansion of an individual’s speech repertoire.

Which brings us to the notion of self-management, a notion developed in research on voluntary language learning in international businesses. In such situations, a worker may notice the need to add a different variety to guarantee promotion: thus, Czech workers in a German-owned factory who wish to become foremen or managers realize that they should learn German and were willing to take private lessons. Self management occurs when an individual sets out to learn a valuable variety, providing support for the growing global language teaching industry. When collectivized, this can lead to the demand that the public school system teach the language: this is obvious in Asia, with the growing interest in English language teaching, or in the Australian language policy that encouraged the teaching of Chinese and Japanese.

Self-management has many similarities to accommodation theory, but while it is usually considered a positive action, it too can share a negative approach, as in resistance to language learning or to one or more of the efforts of language managers. This shows up in the research on attitudinal effects on language learning; the research usually points out that favorable attitudes to the language or its speakers results in better language learning, but the opposite is also true: unfavorable attitudes act as a block to success. I suspect that my own failure in German at university in 1951 was influenced by my growing awareness of the Holocaust. The decision to succeed in school second language learning or the decision of an individual to seek an alternative method of acquiring the language is self-management, influenced by values assigned to the language and its speakers. Within any speech community, there are likely to be a number of individuals who select their own repertoire expansion and others who resist the efforts of language managers, internal or external, who seek to influence their practices or beliefs.

Belief in the value of proficiency in English is associated with what has been called “the English divide”, whereby an elite group of citizens in virtually every country of the world are the ones who develop a high level of proficiency and fluency in English, which establishes their status. It is a common belief in many countries that, without this proficiency, one is excluded from the highest levels of employment.

As one explores the various levels and communities in which language policy occurs, it will be important to be reminded continually that there will be individuals (and often groups of individuals) who have their own beliefs, leading them to develop individual repertoires different from the majority. Thus, the language practices and beliefs of a community will always be diverse, producing a sort of chaotic pattern that will constantly challenge simple analysis. Starting like this with the individual, while it leaves gaps to be filled by other domains and environaments, will provide a better understanding of the way in which a person’s linguistic repertoire expands, as they move into new and more demanding situations, and the way in which putative managers at various levels, attempt, succeed, or fail to shape community repertoires.